Thursday, September 13, 2012

Longfellow's translations - We shall have to pass through the dewy grass

Henry Longfellow was one of the greatest American translators of poetry.  I am browsing through a 1902 edition of his Complete Poems in order to see what I have missed, and the answer is a lot, obviously, but I have read enough to make a judgment.  He had a staggering gift with languages matched or exceeded his skill with versification, and the beauty of translation is that the poetic conceptions, the ideas, are mostly the other guy’s problem.

The great limit on Longfellow’s translations is that he did not do enough of the poets I wanted him to do.  He only seems to have translated two Goethe poems, for instance, the “Wanderer’s Night Song” and this one from 1780:

Night Song                                                   Ein Gleiches

O’er all the hill-tops                                      Über allen Gipfeln
    Is quiet now,                                               Ist Ruh,
In all the tree-tops                                        In allen Wipfeln
    Hearest thou                                               Spürest du
Hardly a breath;                                            Kaum einem Hauch;
    The birds are asleep in the trees:       Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde,
    Wait, soon like these                                Warte nur, balde
      Thou, too, shalt rest.                             Ruhest du auch.

Longfellow  finds a solution for every essential element, including the sentiment, the rhymes, and the rhythm, including the power of the short but variable line lengths.  I suppose he cannot completely  match the strange effect of the two syllable “Ist Ruh,” although he catches the way the stillness and pace are communicated to the reader.  Shhh, slow down.  Look at the way Goethe suggests his reader (the vocal reader) pause for breath on the word “breath.”  Showoff.

When I look at more of Longfellow’s German poems, I find Simon Dach and Gustav Ofizer and Johan Ludwig Uhland where I wish I could find Theodor Storm and Eduard Mörike, but unfortunately Longfellow had little interest in translating his contemporaries.  He was always drawn to medieval and early modern traditions, and to the side of the Romantic tradition that aped the Middle Ages, that wrote ballads to lyrics.  So his Dante is still, in a crowded field of Dante translations, still readable, and his version of the 15th century Las Coplas by Jorge Manrique, an elegy for his heroic father that is also a humanistic exploration of what makes a meaningful life, is an unsurpassed masterpiece.  I wrote about that one almost five years ago, and will just point the curious there for some samples.

And then there is Longfellow’s Michelangelo, but I want to save that for tomorrow.

The 1902 collection contains a single Portuguese poem, a good one by Gil Vicente, so from the late 16th or early 17th century.  I’ll end with it, eight lines that suggest a longer story.


If thou art sleeping, maiden,
    Awake, and open thy door.
‘T is the break of day, and we must away
    O’er meadow, and mount, and moor.

Wait not to find thy slippers
    But come with thy naked feet:
We shall have to pass through the dewy grass,
    And waters wide and fleet.


  1. I'm not one for poetry, but the more German poetry I see, the more I think that it's a language made for this kind of writing.

  2. the more German poetry I see, the more I think that it's a language made for this kind of writing

    Indeed, that Goethe up there is gorgeous. But I must object to Longfellow's license with the final three lines, turning the idea of quiet into rest. It's not his fault we don't have such a great word for schweigen, of course, but the birds aren't asleep—they "are silent," and soon, you will be quiet too. I like that better.

  3. I'm afraid I'll be cranky about Longfellow's Goethe too. He discarded the title, and substituted a generic one. There are many two-syllable solutions for "ist ruh": is still, is rest, is peace. And does he have to end on a slant rhyme? I have nothing against them, really, but this is not the place.

    The Vicente is lovely! I do think, however, that Longfellow sometimes o'erdoes those o'ers.

  4. You guys are tough (which is good). I am happy with a great English poem, which I believe Longfellow gives me, although of course I put the German alongside it to encourage criticisms like these.

    The title - oops, that is partly my fault (and partly the fault of Christopher Middleton, editor of Vol. I of the Princeton UP Collected Works). Longfellow's actual title is "Wanderer's Night-Songs II" (which is part of Goethe's title, but simply drops the "Ein Gleiches" piece).

    The slant rhyme at the end comes from the decision to keep "breath." The four syllables for "Ist Ruh" come from the decision to look for rhyme words with similar vowel sounds as the German. So "du" turns into "thou" which leads to problems with "Ist Ruh."

    Or so I guess, as I imaginatively reverse the solution to the puzzle. Poetry translators must sometimes feel like puzzle-solvers: this decision leads to that one leads to another leads to a dead end. Back up, start over.

    Walter A. Aue goes with "are still" and runs into other problems.

    The "o'er"s do mark the period, don't they? Longfellow was a backward-looking poet. Although I also think Whitman overuses "o'er."

  5. In my own defense, I'll point out that I offer no better solutions. That poem is a particularly difficult puzzle. By the way, did you know that Baudelaire translated portions of "Hiawatha"? He rendered parts in rhyming alexandrines, and parts in prose. Strange literary bedfellows!

  6. I did not know that. I found part of it at a blog I do not know. Baudelaire's version has about as little relation to Longfellow as possible. Kinda fascinating.

    Which reminds me, I've got to correct the title of that Goethe poem. "Wanderer's Night-Song II," but in German.

  7. According to my Pléiade edition, a composer had written an oratorio on Hiawatha, and hired Baudelaire to translate the libretto for performances in France. What poets have to do for money...

  8. Oh. If I had to sing it, I think I would prefer the French.